Why WhatsApp Matters

WhatsApp is being remodeled in front of our eyes. Watch what happens because even if you don’t use the messaging app, the changes could reshape the..

Why WhatsApp Matters

WhatsApp is being remodeled in front of our eyes. Watch what happens because even if you don’t use the messaging app, the changes could reshape the direction of the internet.

Perhaps never before has an online property been so popular and made such little money. More than two billion people worldwide use WhatsApp regularly to text or make phone calls, but it scarcely generates any money for Facebook, which has owned WhatsApp since 2014.

That’s because WhatsApp is mostly a personal communications app, and Facebook doesn’t make money from that group chat with your cousins. This looks set to change. Haltingly, including by agreeing to buy a customer service start-up on Monday, Facebook is trying to use its trademark playbook to remake WhatsApp into an inescapable way for businesses to interact with us.

If Facebook figures it out, WhatsApp could change how we shop and use the internet forever — as the company’s main social network and Instagram did. If not, Facebook will own a spectacularly popular failure. The outcome will set trends for our digital lives and determine which businesses thrive or don’t.

To understand WhatsApp, you need to know about Facebook’s three-step playbook and why it’s breaking down.

First, Facebook makes a nice space for people to hang out with one another. That was the original Facebook social network, then it bought spots like Instagram and WhatsApp.

Once lots of people are there and comfy, Facebook lets businesses in to mingle with people and maybe try to sell running shoes or bedsheets. Step three, the company finds ways to make those businesses pay to reach people. That’s the ticket to riches.

With its main social network and Instagram, businesses pay Facebook by buying ads. Facebook’s other messaging app, Messenger, has started down this path, too. But Facebook has decided that advertisements probably aren’t the way to go for WhatsApp. And it doesn’t exactly know what else to do when it has to deviate from its three-step plan.

The first two steps have gone swimmingly with WhatsApp. The app isn’t widely used in the United States, but in many countries it’s the go-to way to stay in touch with friends and family. And businesses are using WhatsApp to take product orders or respond to customer questions.

It’s just that Facebook hasn’t quite figured out how to hone these habits, refine them, spread them to more companies and make money from it. That third step is tricky. It’s heartening, really, to see the big and mighty Facebook fumbling in the dark a little.

With the planned purchase of Kustomer, a (ridiculously named) start-up that helps businesses do customer service by chat apps, you can see that Facebook wants WhatsApp to be a version of customer call centers. It’s also trying to make WhatsApp a 21st-century Sears catalog, or maybe a digital currency.

It all seems plausible. Sure, WhatsApp could be the best forum for airlines to rebook your flights and for you to check out Levi’s jeans and buy a pair in the chat app. WhatsApp could be the only online presence for many companies. Or maybe none of this will catch on widely. I don’t know, and maybe for the first time in its history, Facebook doesn’t know, either.

The direction of WhatsApp matters because it’s about us.

Think about how Facebook and Instagram changed how many of us interact with one another and find information, influenced how businesses get us interested in their products and maybe rewired our brains.

WhatsApp is that all over again, but potentially more profound because the app is most popular in countries where internet habits are relatively new. WhatsApp in India could change the entire retail industry in ways we can’t imagine. It could influence how governments plan their currencies.

Or, again, WhatsApp could stay wildly popular but never fulfill the hopes Facebook has for it. I’m not sure which outcome we want, but I’ll be paying close attention either way.

One of the significant criticisms of the technology industry is that it’s focused on trivial things.

Peter Thiel, a prominent investor in young technology companies, encapsulated this criticism by saying, “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.” (That was a reference to the former length of tweets. Now they can be up to 280 characters.)

But what if there are profound outcomes from technology, and we just don’t see or understand them?

My colleague Cade Metz wrote about a computer system that can identify the precise shape of tiny proteins in the human body in minutes or hours, instead of years or decades. The breakthrough, Cade wrote, “could accelerate the ability to understand diseases, develop new medicines and unlock mysteries of the human body.”

This is technology most of us will never see or think about but could save lives. And there are more examples of technologies that are hardly trivial yet underappreciated by many of us.

Smartphones couldn’t exist without increasingly sophisticated computer chip designs and the factories to make them. I love to tell you about boring technology like buildings tightly packed with souped-up computers and metal poles in the ground that have drastically expanded internet access around the world.

I have been struck this year by both the limits of technology and our inability sometimes to appreciate the impact of technology if it’s not staring us in the face (or flying over our heads).

Yes, I want technology that can tackle the world’s thorniest problems in transportation, housing, health care and climate change. But we also need to recognize that technology doesn’t have to be as obvious or glamorous as flying cars to change the world.

  • Nothing makes sense: America is in the middle of a pandemic surge and millions of people are struggling. You wouldn’t know it from a new record price for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, or from Airbnb’s plan to become a more richly valued business than almost every U.S. hotel chain.

  • Working harder but earning less: Driving for Uber had been a way for some people in Kenya to make a good living. But when the company cut fares, introduced new categories of cars and added more drivers, it ruined some of the Kenyans who had borrowed money to drive for the service, NBC News and the Pulitzer Center reported.

  • Five patterns in conspiracy theories: The Guardian writes about rhetorical devices common to many conspiracies and the best ways to respond to them. One example: a fallacy of claiming “some kind of causal connection from a random coincidence,” including the arrival of 5G cellular technology at roughly the same time as the coronavirus.

In the 1970s, an Italian singer recorded a song with nonsense lyrics intended to sound like English. It is so strange and incredibly captivating.